Walk into Quattro Goomba’s Winery tasting room and you’ll find a wine slushy machine whirring behind the bar. Drive a few more miles and taste from $200 bottles in RdV Vineyards’ soaring cave.
Some wineries double as their owners’ homes, like Two Twisted Posts Winery, with personal knickknacks such as an acoustic guitar guests can pick up and strum, a cockatoo behind the tasting bar and worn couches. Blue Valley Vineyard feels like a Pottery Barn showroom, and Creek’s Edge Winery leans toward the hunting lodge vibe.
Diversity is the hallmark of Northern Virginia’s wine scene. Professional winemakers move here from the likes of California, New York’s Finger Lakes, Canada, New Zealand and France, all bottling alongside former garagistes (French slang meaning self-taught) who learned from a lot of trial and error.
Wineries like Stone Tower Winery in Leesburg offer spectacular event space for 200-plus person weddings, while others like Linden Vineyards in Fauquier County don’t allow more than four people in a tasting group.
You can order cheese and crackers nearly everywhere, but some wineries are expanding menus to entice guests to linger, featuring dishes like veal and kale meatballs over penne at Leesburg newcomer Winery 32 and homemade cannoli dip and waffle crisps at neighboring Fabbioli Cellars.
The meatballs, the $100-plus bottles and the winemakers from around the world? They are the result of meteoric growth in the state’s wine industry, much of which has exploded in our backyard in the past decade.
The now nearly 90 wineries in Northern Virginia do have some things in common: a mix of good soil and a great growing climate for approachable grapes like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot and lesser-known varietals such as viognier; a focus on education and research supporting the needs of wine industry workers and the farms themselves; financial security from some of the highest concentrations of wealth in the nation, plus state and local government and tourism industry support; and, most importantly, an intense sense of community and collaboration among winemakers, growers and owners.
The numbers tell part of the story: In 2006, there were 97 wineries in all of Virginia—there are now 87 in the Northern Virginia region alone. As of this August, there were 280 farm wineries licensed and 252 farm wineries, which by law have to source a certain percentage of grapes from its property and elsewhere within Virginia. (The difference between the two numbers is linked to the two to three years between producing and selling wine.) That’s a nearly 200 percent increase in a decade, and Loudoun County leads the way with 40, making it the third-largest concentration of wineries on the East Coast behind Long Island’s Suffolk County and the Finger Lakes. (For comparison, Oregon’s Willamette Valley has more than 500 wineries, and California’s mecca Napa Valley region boasts more than 400.)
Virginia ranks fifth in the nation in wine production and seventh in grape growing, harvesting more than 9,000 tons in 2015—a 400 ton increase from 2014, according to the Virginia office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The average price received per ton was up $100 to $1,950, a small but important increase for farmers growing the grapes, which is an industry struggling to keep up with winemaker demand. Viticulturists often stress how important it is that Virginia begins to grow more grapes across the board. In a state boasting nearly 46,000 farms on 8.2 million acres, NoVA had less than 1,000 acres planted with wine grapes in 2014.
In fact, the total number of operating wineries has plateaued over the past three years, due in large part to the lack of state-grown grapes available as wineries invest in—and wait for yield from—expensive new plantings where it can cost up to $20,000 per acre, says Susan Kramer with the Virginia Wine Marketing Office.
“One-tenth of 1 percent of the best land has been planted,” says Linden winemaker-owner Jim Law, who has been a leader in the industry since the early 1980s. “There is a bazillion acres of really good land in Virginia.”
The problem, Law continues, is that many winery sites were chosen for convenience over quality or—for marketing over terroir. But he says that’s mostly changing now, and for the better.
There’s an average of 200 growing days annually east of the Blue Ridge, and land in Loudoun County has been used for farming for centuries, unlike some of the other major growing regions in the state and beyond. Much of it is good for growing wine grapes, but not all varietals. Understanding this is one of the key variables that has improved the wine product coming out of the region, says 8 Chains North Winery owner-grower Ben Renshaw, who has been working in the Loudoun wine business since 1988.
One of the benefits is that the region has a variety of terrain with high concentrations of silty soil, which tends to produce tamer, smoother wines, and loamy growing areas rich with granite, which imparts a distinct minerality and softness to wines.
“People are not just planting hybrids; they’re planting the right vinifera in the right places,” Renshaw says, adding that more winemakers are also buying and leasing land together to grow additional grapes to try to address the fruit shortage. To be a farm winery in Virginia, the owners must source at least 75 percent of their grapes in-state, which means legally you can still buy fruit or juice from other regions. And many wineries do out of necessity.
Education includes training for the future. When a study revealed that 75 percent of the Northern Virginia vineyard workforce was self-taught or trained via apprenticeships, Loudoun Valley Community College responded by launching classes in viticulture education.
Winemaker-owner Doug Fabbioli estimates he’s worked with 50 area winemakers as a consultant since moving to Northern Virginia from California in 1997 to take over as winemaker at Tarara Winery. And that doesn’t include scores more who stop by his namesake Leesburg winery to pick his brain. He calls them the grandkids.
The average farmer in Virginia is nearly 60 years old, and the state wine industry is working to change that.
“The industry is losing farmers. I am building new ones, people to replace my shoes,” says Fabbioli, who also mentors aspiring viticulturists via a joint venture launched in 2014 between Virginia Tech, the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Loudoun Office and the Loudoun Department of Economic Development. He calls the effort a beta test for the local wine industry.
Collaborative learning has been a cornerstone of the Loudoun wine scene for decades. Nate Walsh, winemaker and vineyard manager at Sunset Hills in Purcellville, invites winemakers from across Northern Virginia to participate in a monthly roundtable. They bring in unfinished product, give advice and discuss problems including improvements in the cellar and on the farm and issues with specific varietals, recently regarding chardonnay and cabernet franc.
Several wineries throughout the region also participate in the Winery Research Exchange, a state-funded program providing technical assistance and research support on experimental techniques or varietal work.
“The commonwealth has long supported farm wineries to grow their product, develop and build new facilities and also sell in their tasting rooms,” says Loudoun Wineries Association Board Chair Mark Fedor, who also co-owns North Gate Vineyard in Purcellville. The county, he adds, has followed suit. The Wineries Association shares data and research with the Loudoun Winegrowers Association, which represents area growers.
“This is what makes Loudoun County special. Most wineries are farming operations. The winemakers are there; the owners are there,” Walsh says.
When Roxanne and Michael Moosher decided to launch their Virginia winery, that local support made all the difference.
The Virginia Cooperative Extension office helped with soil analysis, and county planners led them through the permitting and zoning process before Winery 32’s 2014 opening. Neighbors, including Fabbioli, also offered expertise.
“It seemed like everybody’s arms were out. [Area winemakers] want more wineries to come in instead of being worried about competition,” Moosher says.
The same support goes for longtime wine professionals in the area. “If I have a question, I can call six to seven people for help or to borrow something,” 8 Chains’ Renshaw says. In preparing wines for bottling, he borrowed pricey filtering equipment from Hiddencroft Vineyards in Lovettsville and will lend them his barrel washer in return. The same cooperation extends to staff: If his crew is idle and someone needs help with harvest, he sends them over to work and vice versa. Grapes don’t wait for a staffing agency.
“What is good for my neighbor is also good for me as a winery,” says Renshaw.
Barriers continue. It’s an expensive business to grow grapes with no automation and wait years to sell the wine with not enough scale for price breaks on barrels or bottles.
Land and labor are not cheap, especially in Northern Virginia. “A small winery with 50 acres of land, 10-20 acres of grapes, a winery and a house would likely be in the range of $2-3 million in Loudoun County,” says Mark Malick, co-owner of Purcellville’s Maggie Malick Wine Caves and a grape grower and winery-focused real estate agent based in the county. “The further you get away from the Beltway, the less expensive wineries become.”
But all the cooperation and mentoring is paying off. “Even 10 years ago, you would go to a [Virginia] winery and taste and there were fundamental problems with the wine,” shared Jarad Slipp, RdV’s estate director and a member of the uber elite Court of Master Sommeliers, a professional distinction only 211 people in the world have attained. “We’re not seeing that anymore. Wines are being made at commercial level, across the bar.”
The most successful winery owners and growers in Loudoun are proponents of smart growth. Breaux, the largest winery in Northern Virginia and one of the oldest in the county, has over 100 acres under vine, but only in the past few years did it launch a massive expansion effort, adding 41,000 square feet in cellar, workshop, tasting and event space, including a private area strictly for its 1,500 Wine Club members. Its previous tasting room was just over 1,500 square feet. The grapes were priority; the building followed.
“The vineyard has always come first,” says sales and hospitality director Jennifer Blosser, whose father, Paul Breaux, started the winery in 1997.
Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, founded by Jennifer McCloud in 1998, followed a similar path. After 15 years of expanding her acreage under vine, including the world’s largest planting of Virginia’s native Norton grape, McCloud announced plans to expand the winery’s operations by adding a project called the Ag District. When completed, it will include a creamery, a large kitchen and a tech-laden tasting room, which is set to open this fall.
“In Virginia, there is an opportunity for a core of great winemakers to jump on the heels of those who have led us to this place: Jim Law, Luca Paschina (winemaker at award-winning Barboursville Vineyard in Orange County since 1990),” says Jordan Harris, who moved from Ontario in 2007 to take over winemaking duties at Tarara.
“Now Virginia can make that next step. People are curious. It’s up to the second generation of Virginia winemakers to make world-class wine across the state and get it recognized.”